22 March 2016

First Ladies: Cuthburga, an Ex-Queen Who Founded an Influential Abbey

By Kim Rendfeld

Cuthburga’s greatness came after she left her royal husband.

The sister of King Ine of Wessex would go on to found Wimborne Minster in Dorset, a double monastery that would influence Christianity on the Continent. It became a training ground of female missionaries, burial place of royalty, and college of secular (nonmonastic) canons.

But we’re left with more questions than answers about the early medieval Saxon responsible for its existence. Her birth date is unknown, and she died August 31, perhaps in 725. She was married to Northumbrian King Aldfrith, who ruled a realm about 300 miles from her home.

Like almost all marriages in the Dark Ages, Aldfrith and Cuthburga would have wed for political reasons rather than love. Whether they parted before or after their marriage was consummated depends on whether we believe manuscripts written in the 12th and 14th centuries. In the latter manuscript, whose author took the creative liberties of a historical novelist, Cuthburga wanted Christ as her spouse, and on the night of her nuptials, she quoted Scripture to her husband to extol the virtues of virginity, a higher calling than wedlock. Although Aldfrith desired her, he released Cuthburga from her marital vows and even asked her to pray for him.

Such a scene is good for drama, but it’s highly unlikely. Medieval wedding nights were not private events. In a state of undress, the bride and groom accepted each other in front of witnesses.

A more plausible possibility is that Cuthburga became a nun after failing to produce an heir. The couple might have seen the lack of a child as a sign from God, especially if she was already drawn to a spiritual life. Her taking the veil proved mutually beneficial. As an abbess, Cuthburga would still have a position of wealth, importance, and power – plus the independence of not having a man telling her what to do.   Aldfrith would consent to letting his wife go because it would free him to marry a fertile woman.

Aldfrith had a son, Osred, around 696, but Cuthburga did not act like the boy’s mother. Osred was 8 when his father died around 704. In such cases, the widowed queen often was regent until the son came of age. Cuthburga did not play that influential role. In fact, she seemed to have nothing to with Northumbrian politics.

After leaving her husband, Cuthburga went to Barking, perhaps for a yearlong novitiate under Abbess Hildelith. By 705, she founded the double monastery at Wimborne and was joined by her sister and later successor Cwenburga. Her abbey became a center for teaching religious women. Later, Saint Boniface turned to Tetta, another of Cuthburga’s successors, when he needed nuns to serve as missionaries on the Continent.

If we are to believe Rudolf of Fulda in his ninth century hagiography about Saint Lioba, men and women at Wimborne lived on the grounds in their own houses and did not interact. The only time the women saw a man was when the priest celebrated Mass. Three centuries later, William of Malmesbury calls Cuthburga’s community “a full company of virgins, dead to earthly desires and breathing only aspirations towards heaven.”

Yet her fate in afterlife is uncertain. According to an eighth-century anonymous monk, the former queen is screaming in a penitential pit with a couple of other aristocrats, having their carnal sins thrown in their faces like boiling mud. Could the monk have meant a different Cuthburga? He mentions her once being a queen but nothing of her being an abbess.

However, she was canonized by the 14th century, and I prefer this entry from a manuscript of that era: “She was buried with fitting honour in the same church which she had built to the holy mother of God, where by her merits very many miracles were wrought and many benefits were bestowed on the sick; the power of walking was restored to the lame, hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind, through the tender mercy of Jesus our Christ, whose majesty and sway remain for ever and ever.”


A Dictionary of Saintly Women
, Volume 1, by Agnes Baillie Cuninghame Dunbar

William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England: From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen (12th century, 1866 translation)

Hell and Its Afterlife: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Isabel Moreira and Margaret Toscano

Woman under Monasticism: Chapters on Saint-Lore and Convent Life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500, Lina Eckenstein

A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain: England, Scotland, and Wales, c. 500-c. 1050, Ann Williams, D. P. Kirby

The Collegiate Church of Wimborne Minster, Patricia Helen Coulstock

“The Marriage of St. Cuthburga, Who Was afterwards Foundress of the Monastery at Winiborne,” by the Rev. Canon J.M.J. Fletcher, Proceedings - Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, Vol. 27 [http://www.archive.org/stream/proceedingsdorse34dors/proceedingsdorse34dors_djvu.txt]

Medieval Sourcebook: Rudolph of Fulda: Life of Leoba [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/leoba.asp]

Kim Rendfeld was curious about Cuthburga because Wimborne trained female missionaries who played an influential role in medieval Francia, the setting for her novels, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and her work in progress, Queen of the Darkest Hour.